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What will future hold for powered flight?

12:00am | & News

Hard to believe but it is less than 113 years since man first achieved powered flight, when Orville and Wilbur flew their homemade Wright Flyer near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The world's oldest living person, Italian Emma Morano, was already four years old when the Wright Brothers took to the air.

Their fragile spruce and fabric aircraft made four short flights that historic day. The longest was just 852 feet, covered in 59 seconds and reaching a speed of 6.82mph. They had hoped to make the four-mile flight to Kitty Hawk village, but a heavy gust of wind tumbled their flyer end over end, damaging it beyond a quick repair. Although it never flew again, it occupies a unique place in aviation history and pride of place at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. 

In the 113 years since those first tentative flights, aviation has evolved at a breathtaking pace. Just 10 years after the first flight a French pilot flew at more than 126mph and 10 years after that the air speed record was more than 266mph.

Today powered flight is something we all take for granted, as if it has been around forever. The fastest military jet, the Lockheed Blackbird, can fly at almost 2,200mph while the Boeing 777-200 long range passenger jet can carry 300 passengers for 17,395km – almost halfway round the world – before it needs to refuel. Latest estimates put the number of commercial aircraft in the world at more than 25,000, with that number predicted to top 40,000 over the next 15 years.

So what does the future hold for powered flight? In recent years there has been a much greater focus on the amount of high-octane fuel that jets use and the pollution they create in the earth's atmosphere. Manufacturers are already releasing smaller wide-bodied aircraft designed to be much more fuel-efficient and less polluting.

And then there is the possibility of solar-powered flight. Just this week a revolutionary aircraft, the Solar Impulse (pictured), completed the 15th stage of its planned round-the-world route, crossing the Atlantic from New York to Spain in 72 hours. Described as a 'zero-fuel aeroplane', the Solar Impulse has a 72-metre wingspan, bigger than a Boeing 747, but carries a single person, its pilot.

The upper surfaces of its wings and fuselage are covered in 17,000 solar cells, harvesting energy from the sun to power up to four electric motor 'engines', each turning  a four-metre propeller. Energy is also stored in lithium-ion batteries, which power the aircraft after the sun has set.

The Solar Impulse project is not intended as a blueprint for the future of aviation, but to demonstrate the capabilities of solar power and promote 'clean' sustainable energy sources. It could well be that in the not-too-distant future we will see 'hybrid' aircraft in service, using a combination of both traditional fuel and sustainable energy in the form of solar power.

The car industry has already paved the way for hybrid technology, with fully electric cars now becoming a viable, if expensive, alternative for the first time. Given the incredible pace of progress in aviation over the past century, who can say what the next century will bring?

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